Love inspires people to do amazing things. The Taj Mahal was built for love, and book after book of timeless poetry was written for it. Romance changes history, topples empires, and fuels many of the best and most lasting stories humans have ever told.
Apparently, books that focus on romance don’t get to enjoy the same high-minded appreciation. According to the so-called literary establishment, literature is not a term that has room for the humble Romance novel.
Terms like “commercial fiction” are used to dismiss the artistic merits of the Romance genre. Is this fair? I can’t answer that — the issue is too subjective.
As a writer, author, and an educated reader, however, what I can say with some certainty is that the Romance genre does have artistic merit. In fact, it contains some of the finest examples of the written word within its many titles.
Let’s take a look at this oft-berated genre, and I’ll show you what I mean.
Romance Writers Have Always Gotten Flak. Why? Misogyny, Mostly.
Throughout history, there is a notable trend of “women’s fiction” being demeaned, dismissed, and degraded by the world's literary and academic establishments.
What a surprise, right? Even after influential writers like Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley challenged this establishment with their brilliant and often-controversial work, certain patriarchal norms persisted in the tradition of literary criticism.
Even when they contain heavy romantic themes and are largely geared toward a female audience, books written by female literary icons are rarely placed within the Romance genre even when they arguably belong there.
It’s as if placing these works in the Romance category — with classics like Jane Eyre and Pride & Prejudice among the books in question — would somehow sully their reputation as seminal masterpieces.
The idea that they could be masterpieces and Romance novels is unthinkable to many literary critics. The powerful, boundary-breaking themes of these books and their simultaneous focus on romance as a central tenet of their story arcs seem to be impossible reconciliations for many in the academic community.
Classics And Their De-Romanticization in Literary Circles.
Here is a fine example of a boundary-busting theme, as demonstrated by a quote from Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s novel of the same name:
“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; […] It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
This beautifully written challenge to the entrenched gender hierarchy of the 19th century is worthy of the acclaim it has long generated. It is a fine piece of literature.
So is this quote from the same novel, spoken by the male antihero and love-interest of the book’s heroine:
“Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear. Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still.”
And yet you would be hard-pressed to find a literary critic willing to place this classic in the same category as books such as Twilight, The Notebook, or the work of J.R. Ward.
You can find plenty of pieces talking about why Jane Eyre and other classics are, in fact, Romance novels, but rarely is there any real discussion over whether the modern Romance genre potentially generates works equal in merit to these classics.
The Threads Of Misogyny Are Woven Into The Modern Critical Tradition.
V.S. Naipaul, one of the most well known literary critics and authors of our modern era — and the winner of a Nobel Prize for literature, to boot — had this to say about the female author:
“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me… My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”
William Giraldi, one of the most lauded literary authors of our time and a staunch literary critic, pleasantly refers to writers of anything deemed “commercial fiction” as “hacks.” Of Romance as a genre, he says,
“Dreck of this stupendous caliber has a particular advantage over literature in that one doesn’t have to read all of it to surmise, accurately and eternally, that it is all uniformly awful and awfully uniform — romance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn.”
In further statements, he scathingly asserted that books in the Romance genre “aren’t meant to be considered as actual writing.”
Literary professor and scholar Julie M. Dugger, in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, encapsulates the snobbery of so-called critics like these in a succinct statement:
“Romance novels, from a literary critical perspective, are different not only because they are so much more successfully sold, but also because, like other branded commodities, one is as good as another. To the critic, if not to the romance reader, romances lack individuality.”
That “lack of individuality” smells an awful lot like misogyny when observed in cases like those mentioned above. It would seem that certain literary critics feel that any audience consuming these books — a largely female audience, I might add — itself lacks individuality. Read: women [readers] lack individuality.
Hmmm. That sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Slapping on a veneer of intellectualism doesn't quite cover up the stench of overt sexism and a near-desperate attempt to “protect” the largely masculinized realm of what these critics call “real writing.”
There Are Many Forms Of “Real Writing” — Historically, They’ve Been Anything NOT Written By (Or For) Women.
As a brief addition to the previous points made in this article, I find it necessary to add that the sexist, elitist criticism against all writing done by women, for women, is a longstanding tradition.
The opinions of “literary critics” like Giraldi and Naipaul are simply outgrowths from the pedigree of misogyny that bred them. Take this view of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, as expressed in 1855:
“America is now wholly given over to a d[amne]d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public is occupied with their trash.… Generally, women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly.”
Citing the popularity and prevalence of the “courtship novel” in the 18th century, one critic quipped,
“So long as our British ladies continue to encourage our hackney scribblers, by reading every romance that appears, we need not wonder that the press should swarm with such poor insignificant productions.”
These attitudes were overwhelmingly the norm well into the 20th century. Their legacy is not easily shaken in the still predominantly male literary circles of today — and female critics are still quite vocal when using the “male voice” to level dismissive labels against Romantic fiction.
To attempt a separation between the deeply sexist criticism of “women’s literature” and that of the Romance genre is to completely ignore the underlying currents that firmly place both traditions in the same vein, both historically and in our current time.
Romance Writing Is Inherently Powerful…Because It’s About Romance.
Great writing is built on great emotion. People elevate books because those books made them feel. Passion, optimism, anger, sorrow, it doesn’t matter. It is the very act of feeling that turns a piece of writing into a work of art.
Acclaimed literature is almost always subversive. It challenges, it explores, and it makes powerful statements about society, nature, and all of the forces that influence the human experience. How can romance — love stories — not be counted among these forces?
Many critics of the Romance genre cite poor writing as the reason for their disdain toward the books occupying it. This “bad” writing is usually described as lowly, over-simplified, or otherwise geared toward less intelligent readers.
And yet Hemmingway’s novels were written at a fourth-grade reading level, and writers like Ray Bradbury took simplified novels to new heights (or heits) through their work. And yet the literary greats who created work at the level of Cormac McCarthy or Samuel Beckett often used simple, accessible writing styles to explore deeply moving human experiences.
Of course, there is also the fact that critics’ characterization of Romance writing as one “type” or style is reductionist at best. At worst, it is willful snobbery undertaken by supposed academics who have never even attempted a true assessment of the genre from a scholarly standpoint.
Let me illustrate this with a fun exercise. Of the quotes below, which are from “literary classics” and which are from genre Romance novels?
“No man deserves a woman like that. He mortgages his very soul to win her and spends his life paying off the debt.”
“Bertie didn’t mean to, but she inhaled, and everything inside her was a spring morning, a rose opening its petals to the sun, the light coming through the wavering glass of an old, diamond-paned window.”
“We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others. But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together.”
“It’s a great shame, she thinks, that the heart cannot feel joy without also feeling pain, that it cannot know love without also knowing loss.”
It’s a bit of a trick question, as only one of them is from a work of Literary Fiction — the second-to-last quote is from Hemmingway’s A Farewell To Arms.
The rest are all excerpts from genre Romance novels; Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke, Lisa Mantchev’s Eyes Like Stars, and Menna van Praag’s The Dress Shop of Dreams, respectively. These inspired, poetic writing styles are not lessened because their authors are Romance novelists — just as the simple, to-the-point writing of many literary greats does not lessen its emotional impact or credibility.
To act as if the Romance genre is somehow immune to good writing (or the Literary Fiction category immune to bad writing) is to admit that literary criticism as a discipline is merely the act of grasping in subjective darkness.
Of all the novels and stories that move us, a huge number — potentially even a majority of them — center around love stories. Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, nearly all of Shakespeare’s work, Great Expectations, and many more stand as examples of this fact.
Within the pages of Romance novels, you might find some of the most beautiful prose you have ever read. You may sink, totally arrested, into a story so compelling it sticks with you for the rest of your life. There is nothing about the Romance genre preventing this, but the judgments leveled against it have prevented any serious scholarly appreciation of the masterpieces wearing the genre’s label.
Now Is A Better Time Than Ever To Appreciate The True Potential Of Romance Novels.
With the advent of fourth-wave feminism, and the resulting conversations about the iniquities historically leveled against women writers, there has never been a better moment to rethink our views on the Romance genre.
The era of literary gatekeepers is ending. Classism, racism, and sexism thinly disguised as intellectual snobbery are all being called to account. Many of the barriers to writing and publishing have been worn down significantly in the past few years, allowing an influx of new authors to enter the scene.
So long as love is a driving force in our lives, Romance novels will be powerful. They will be compelling, impactful, and engaging, and if given a chance, they have as much potential to become true examples of great literature as the books of any other genre.
We need to start asking ourselves who has the right to label writing as “real” or “good” or “literary,” and why. As readers and authors, we should seriously question those academics who believe themselves to be more qualified than us to pass judgment on the stories we love, cherish, and invest ourselves in.
The Golden Age of the Romance novel is just beginning — how it unfolds is up to us.